Tuesday was a hot day on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, but it was hottest, perhaps, for Michael T. Johnson.
Johnson, head of the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, wants to set up a 50-bed North Idaho work camp for juvenile offenders. And he liked what he saw Tuesday at the U.S. Forest Service’s Shoshone Work Center, about 30 miles north of Interstate 90.
“I think this site has some potential,” he said, after inspecting the compound. “Of the places I’ve seen, this is much better.”
But the proposal horrifies many locals, about 40 of whom were waiting for Johnson when he arrived.
The North Fork is popular with campers, anglers and elk hunters throughout North Idaho and Spokane. Locals fear escaping juveniles could easily steal knives and rifles.
“It’s strictly a recreation area,” said Spokane resident Art Mueller, who’s owned a cabin near the site since 1977. The 63-year-old retired auto dealer said he’d likely sell his cabin if the work camp becomes reality.
“Half of them are going to want to escape,” he said. “They’ll find the first resident or camper, hold a knife to his throat, and take his car.”
“I think it’s terrible,” said Linda Wilson of nearby Murray. “It was juveniles that killed that guy down in southern Idaho.”
She was referring to the April slaying of Forest Service engineer David Wheeler near Weiser, Idaho. Two youths allegedly walked away from a juvenile holding facility and shot Wheeler to death with a sawedoff .22-caliber rifle. They’ve been charged with first-degree murder.
J.D. Holbart said he fears for the safety of his wife and granddaughters.
“You should be able to take your family up there, spread a blanket, and have a picnic,” he said. “Our right to use the river in freedom and comfort will be gone.”
“We don’t need this. We don’t want this. All aspects. Nothing,” said Barbara Holbart, J.D.’s wife.
This is the third time in six years that the Holbarts and their neighbors have tried to head off corrections officials interested in the compound. In 1989 and again in 1993, the state proposed putting a minimumsecurity prison there.
Both times, public outcry squelched the proposals. In the longer battle, in 1989, the Holbarts collected nearly 5,000 signatures opposing a prison.
“This isn’t just a county issue. People from Spokane and Coeur d’Alene come here,” J.D. Holbart said.
The Shoshone Work Center was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, with buildings added in the 1950s and 1970s. Today, there are four barracks buildings, a shop, a dining hall and an administration building on the site.
All the buildings seem in good shape. In fact, the largest of the barracks is nicknamed The Hilton. But the compound has been largely vacant since the late 1970s, and it’s costs taxpayers more than $70,000 a year to maintain.
“We just don’t have big timber crews and fire crews anymore,” said facilities manager Dwight Clift. “We’d hate to tear it down, but we can’t afford to maintain it.”
“It’s virtually unused,” said forester John Specht. “We’ve used it one time in the last 10 years for a fire camp.”
Johnson, the corrections official, spent about 45 minutes touring the various buildings. He didn’t even slow down when officials led him under a bird’s nest and into a women’s bathroom.
He also seemed undaunted by the less-than-friendly crowd.
“You’re acting like we’re going to take this site. We’re not sure that we are,” he told them. “If the community buys into it, we’ll go ahead. If they don’t, we won’t. Simple as that.”
But he said that the juvenile criminals, most of whom would come from north of Lewiston, must go somewhere.
“Where should we send the kids from your area who do wrong?” Johnson asked the crowd. “If we don’t put them in your community, whose community do we put them in?”
And he said there is local support for the camp.
“There are members of this community who say this would be a perfect place,” he told the crowd.
“Holy cats!” gasped an elderly woman.
Such a facility is badly needed in North Idaho, said Mike Stallcup, Kootenai County’s chief probation officer. The camp, he said, would serve as a middle step between probation and shipping the youths off to the state’s juvenile prison at St. Anthony. Three to six months at a work camp could turn around a young burglar or thief, he said.
Opponents of the camp, meanwhile, vowed to step up their campaign.
“This is an area where people don’t lock up at night,” said Barbara Holbart. “This (work camp) will end that.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Map of proposed juvenile detention center area
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